Connecting dots . . . wrongly

In my Acts of the Apostles course, one of the projects the students are required to complete is the Personal Application Paper, which requires the student to catalog twenty principles they have discovered in their study of the book of Acts. They are then required to formulate a plan to apply each of the principles to their lives.

An example of how this project works follows:

PRINCIPLE: Everything isn’t as it immediately seems, therefore, don’t draw definite conclusions hastily.

TEXT: Acts 28:3–6

BACKGROUND: En route to Rome according to his appeal to Caesar, Paul survived a treacherous voyage at sea and landed at Malta, battered but alive. Paul was among 276 survivors who were welcomed by the local residents. However, he was a prisoner, which apparently communicated certain things about him to his hosts; namely, that he was somehow shortchanging justice by surviving the shipwreck. This conclusion regarding their assumptions is based on what his hosts said in response to Paul being bitten on the hand by a viper,

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

In the minds of those who were watching Paul, certain things were obvious: a) He was a prisoner who was guilty, likely of murder; b) he deserved punishment, though somehow he had apparently dodged it by surviving the shipwreck; and c) Justice (or fate) had finally caught up to him by way of the viper.

The dots were connecting very nicely . . . until Paul simply shook free of the viper and suffered no ill effects (28:5). However, being certain that “a” leads to “b” leads to “c”, their confidence was only slightly halted by the delay in any obvious effects of the snake bite. Because these dots were so easy to connect, they could wait expectantly for Paul “to swell up or suddenly fall down dead” (28:6). But, after waiting a long time and having none of their expectations realized, they had to reconsider their conclusions regarding Paul.

This time, though, things were more clear: a) a man who survives a stormy sea and shipwreck, b) which is immediately followed by a deadly snakebite that has no ill effect, c) is clearly “a god” (28:6). Paul must be a god. Yes, that has to be it; those dots connect very nicely! Or, . . . perhaps, there is still a better – more correct – explanation.

POINT: Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem . . . even when they seem so obvious or clear. For those of us who believe we can read people well, this is a difficult thing to accept. Better yet, it’s difficult to practice patience. And this lack of patience can be particularly harmful (to us and others) when we begin to assign motive for their actions. Here’s the truth: sometimes people do things for reasons that appear very obvious, but in reality, are for very different reasons or for no real reason at all. Sometimes we do dumb things or do things badly, just because we are people.

“Why did you throw a rock through Mrs. Jones’ barn window?” the teenager’s mother angrily enquired. “It’s because she told us she saw you smoking at the back of her property; it’s payback, isn’t it?” his dad accusingly interrupted, conveniently wrapping up the mystery. “No! I didn’t even think about whose window it was. I don’t know why I did it; Joe and I were walking behind her barn and we saw some rocks and a dusty old window, and without really thinking we thought, ‘let’s see who can hit the window.’ He threw first and missed. Unfortunately, I won; I hit it on my first try,” the teen explained.

In the fictional conversation above, the dots connected very easily for the teen’s parents: a) They knew their son, b) Mrs. Jones had reported his smoking, and c) that report obviously led to retaliation. Or did it? In reality – as much as a fictional story can portray reality – their son broke the window because: a) he is a teenage boy in the company of another teenage boy, b) with access to rocks and an old window, and c) it seemed like fun to see who could break the glass. Pretty simple. Pretty reasonable, … if you know teenage boys who have access to rocks and old windows.

But, if the glass is still broken, what difference does it make if it was broken for revenge or the result of a poor decision? It makes all the difference in the world in terms of how the matter should be handled. In this case, revenge is a matter of the heart; a poor decision is a matter of maturity. Furthermore, the revenge angle wrongly assigns evil intent to the teen, which unfairly harms his reputation and the relationship between him and his parents.

APPLICATION: I will endeavor to be slower and more considered (i.e., investigative) in connecting dots, particularly when the dots lead to negative conclusions about others based on their actions. Proverbs 18:17 offers wisdom to this end:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

 

Choosing Thomas

The Dallas Morning News has published a beautiful article Choosing Thomas, which details the heartbreaking and joy giving story of TK and Deidra Laux whose son Thomas was a victim of Trisomy 13.

As a parent who has walked this path, I want to complement the staff of The Dallas Morning News on a wonderful job of presenting this story, capturing the heartache and disappointment and fear that parents feel when faced with the terrible news: “There appear to be some serious problems.” The staff also did a wonderful job in capturing the surprising joy that a baby with “serious and fatal problems” brings to his/her parents and family and friends.

As I watched the video and read the accompanying article(s) and journal, I continually thought: This is our story. That’s what happened to us.

However, our story was different in that our Abigail Hope didn’t survive to birth; she was stillborn. Our story was also complicated by the fact that it took place in Israel, far away from our family and most of our life friends.

We were thankful that there were a few people here who hurt with us, but so many seemed to dismiss our situation as nothing too serious. Perhaps some just didn’t know what to say, which is common. But in many cases, it was simply a cultural callousness toward these types of things. At least one person assumed Abigail didn’t have a name yet, thus she didn’t have “person hood.” He was wrong on both counts. Others blindly followed the traditional Jewish thought that a life duration of more than thirty days establishes a human being as a viable person. If a child dies before that time, he is considered to not have lived at all.

The medical community offered no comfort either since they could only think of one thing to say: “TERMINATE NOW!” In fact, the country’s expert in 3-D ultrasound and genetic abnormalities was shocking in his callousness: In response to our question regarding the reasonable expectation of length of life for Abigail should she survive to full term, he said, “Not long, but I would hope she wouldn’t live one second! Her problems are too severe to want her to live. My advice is to terminate NOW!” Unfortunately, that wasn’t his only disaster in bed side manner, but I’m not interested to recount the others here.

“Terminate now,” was so foreign to our thoughts, the doctors all thought we had parachuted in from another galaxy. We insisted that we wouldn’t even consider killing Abigail, and the doctors looked at us in utter disbelief and disdain. Who were we to be so resistant to their advice? They were the experts; and they know the outcome of these situations. I knew our position was right, but it was nice to hear other parents in our situation agree with us – even three years later: Toward the end of the video report [in a voice over the funeral scenes] Deidre Laux clearly articulated our thoughts: “We didn’t not terminate because we were hanging onto some sort of hope there was a medical mistake or there was going to be some some sort of medical miracle. We didn’t terminate because he’s our son.” Because Abigail was our daughter! We loved her, broken body and all; how could we even consider breaking her body more?

Burial is another point at which our story and the Lauxes’ diverge. In Israel, most cemeteries are religiously segregated, which is to say that Abigail couldn’t be buried in a Jewish or Muslim cemetery, the most abundant cemeteries here. As it turned out, she wasn’t welcome to be buried in the evangelical Christian cemetery either, which is a story in itself.

This all happened so fast, and the hospital staff was pressing us for an answer regarding the disposition of the body. Dealing with death, especially that of our own child, in Israel was all new to us. We didn’t know to whom to turn. And it was late Thursday afternoon, which is to say that the Sabbath was quickly approaching and things would be shutting down for the weekend. We made a few phone calls, only to reach dead ends or endless stalling, which we understood to be a no without actually saying, “no.” Meanwhile, the hospital was pressing for an answer.

Finally, we decided to use the service of the Jewish burial society, who gathers the bodies of all children under the age of 30 days and buries them in an unmarked grave. I guess to their credit, even though they don’t consider the children to have genuine person hood, at least they give them a somewhat proper burial.

I recommend this video report to you. If you aren’t familiar with the emotions and thoughts and struggles that take place when parents are told, “there are some problems,” this report will give you some insight.

If you are struggling with the issue of termination, please watch the video – to the end.

In our days on this road, we leaned heavily on each other, but more heavily upon the Lord: “Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper! (Psalm 30:10)” He was, and continues to be.

Feedback

She approached me just before the service started and said, “I want to give you some feedback from what you said last week. It’s good to get feedback.” At that moment, I had that funny feeling in my stomach that said, “Oh boy, what did I say that needs to be corrected? And why now?” As everything went into slow motion, my mind worked overtime trying to figure out what I said that might have been controversial or problematic. I couldn’t think of anything.

Those who have been in ministry for any length of time, have probably had the same type of negative experience. You know, the kind where a person feels obligated to approach you and tell you that you didn’t say something well, or that they disagree with what you said. That’s what “feedback” usually means. And, this almost always occurs just moments before the service is supposed to start, or when you are in the middle of something that needs your undivided attention.

“Something you said last week has stuck with me all week. I was really challenged when you told us that we need to be conscientious of how we speak to God and others. I really needed that reminder. Thanks.”

In a rare use of the word “feedback,” she wanted to compliment and thank me for something I said the week before. Some days you just need that type of feedback.

Psalm 19:14 – “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (ESV)

Scary Quote

“Every religious Jew knows that when you keep the Shabbat, the Shabbat in turn keeps and protects you.”

Background: Due to a recent public sector labor strike, workers at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport refused to process passengers and aircraft coming or going. This work stoppage caused a tremendous backup that stranded passengers from all airlines.

Once the strike ended, all the airlines, including El Al, Israel’s recently privatized, national carrier, worked overtime on Shabbat (Sabbath) to get their stranded passengers to their destinations. El Al’s “desecration” of the Sabbath has stirred quite a controversy in Israel, particularly but not exclusively among religious Jews.

On Monday, following the perceived Sabbath desecration, a New York bound El Al aircraft had to return to Ben Gurion Airport due to a landing gear malfunction and some (perhaps, many) among the religiously observant community saw it as a sign that God was displeased with El Al.

Minor Question: Is this any different than Pat Robertson suggesting that Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke demonstrated God’s displeasure with his handling of Gaza and the West Bank?

Real Issue: Is it appropriate to suggest that the Sabbath has such powers? Did God intend for the Sabbath to watch over the nation of Israel? Can it really watch over Israel? It is commonly said that if all Jews would observe the Sabbath two consecutive times, Messiah will present himself. While this is clearly an unbiblical assertion, it is dramatically different than suggesting that the Sabbath has protective power.

Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills –
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of Heaven and Earth.

He will not let your foot slip –
He who watches over you will not slumber;
Indeed, He who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you –
The LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm –
He will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

If I’ve got a choice between trusting the Sabbath and trusting the LORD, I’m going with the LORD every time.

A Personal Psalm

Following is a personal psalm that I wrote ten years ago for the occasion of my ordination. It is based on the model of Psalm 136 and served as a wonderful opportunity to identify and proclaim the many ways that God has worked in my life. I commend the exercise to you for your personal edification.

A Psalm of Thanks

O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for His mercy endures forever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods; for he is good: for His mercy endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for His mercy endures forever.

To Him who alone doeth great wonders: for His mercy endures forever.

To Him who has given me loving parents: for His mercy endures forever:
Who have always been supportive even when they didn’t understand the direction of my life: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who gave me someone who would become a “best friend”: His mercy endures forever:
Who first invited me to church: His mercy endures forever:
And expressed a concern for my soul: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who sent a preacher with the message of salvation: His mercy endures forever:
Who preached with passion and love: His mercy endures forever:
And clearly communicated to me salvation in Christ: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who gave me men and women who would train me in godliness: His mercy endures forever:
Who opened the Holy Scriptures to me: His mercy endures forever:
And guided me in wisdom: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who allowed me to live in Zion: His mercy endures forever:
And gave me a family and ministry in the Holy City, Jerusalem: His mercy endures forever:
And set within my heart a love for his people, Israel: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who shall sustain me through trials and temptations: His mercy endures forever:
When the tempest shall rage about me, He is sure: His mercy endures forever:
When burdens are heavy, He is strong: His mercy endures forever:
Though darkness may encompass me, He giveth light: His mercy endures forever.

To Him who now sends me out by the laying on of hands: His mercy endures forever.

O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for His mercy endures forever.

Modeled after Psalm 136 by Craig Dunning – October 30, 1996

Happy New Year!

Psalm 1

How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

The wicked are not like this; instead, they are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not survive the judgment, and sinners will not be in the community of the righteous.

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to ruin. (HCSB)

Want to have a Happy New Year? Really? Well, the psalmist offers us the way.

To offer any commentary here seems to wrongly imply that the psalmist’s words are difficult to understand. However, I will suggest that by delighting and meditating in the LORD’s instruction we will find that the unhappy areas of our lives will be changed.

Beware, though, the necessary change may be a painful process of transformation. But be certain, true happiness will be the end result.